HCF REWIND NO. 157: PHANTOM OF DEATH AKA EN DELITTO POPO COMMUNE, OFF BALANCE, Italy 1988
AVAILABLE ON DVD
RUNNING TIME: 88 min
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
A female doctor is brutally murdered and the only clue is an indirect description of a 30 year old man from an elderly witness. As Inspector Datti investigates the crime, Robert Dominici, a hugely successful classical concert pianist who is at the height of his career, splits up with his girlfriend Susanna when she wants to get serious. After sleeping with his best friend David, Susanna decides to give her relationship with Robert another go, but she is also viciously killed. The killer challenges Datti on the phone and says he can’t be caught since he has a secret which makes him invulnerable….
Horror cinema is full of folk who just can’t stand getting old and desperately try to hold it at bay by fair means or foul. Actually none of us are probably not too keen on the idea, but we don’t have the knowledge to prevent it. She, The Man Who Could Cheat Death and Countess Dracula are three out of many title characters who manage, if not for ever, to stop the ravages of time. The Phantom Of Death has a slightly different problem. He suffers from a disease which conveniently kicks in soon after the film begins, a disease which makes him age prematurely. This actually exists in real life and is called progeria, though it usually involves children. I also doubt there have been any cases where the sufferer is also turned into a homicidal maniac by the condition. Phantom Of Death was directed by Ruggero Deodato [who can be seen hopping onto a moped at a train station], the man responsible for the brilliant Cannibal Holocaust, but to me none of his other films, including The House On The Edge Of The Park [a film which even I found a tad offensive] have come anywhere near that masterpiece in quality. This picture is a case in point, though it’s enjoyable if you don’t expect too much.
Inspired by Deodato’s own fear of aging, this film did disappointing business and remains not too well known despite having two ‘name’ stars. It was released in the UK on video as Off Limits but I distinctly remember picking up a video of it [though I didn’t buy it] under the Phantom Of Death title many years ago. Now you probably already know who the killer is by the picture, and if you don’t, I’m going to tell you now, but I’m not classifying this as a spoiler, because every review I’ve read tells you, and every video and DVD tells you on the back! Yes, it’s Robert Dominici, the concert pianist played by Michael York! Though ostensibly a giallo, the film only keeps you guessing the killer’s identity for about half an hour before it is revealed. Though we still see Robert killing and trying to kill after that, he becomes quite a sympathetic character nonetheless. This is aided immensely by two things. York’s performance is simply excellent. Though at 46 a little too old for the role, he really gets his teeth into the part and makes his degeneration quite convincing while avoiding going over the top. I’ve never really been impressed with York before. Then there’s the superb make-up of Fabrizio Sforza, which realistically shows York in several stages of old age and is amongst the best of its kind.
The increasing emphasis of Robert’s physical and psychological state allows for some rather touching scenes, like a meeting with another old man on a bench and a friendship with an abandoned dog. Another strong scene has him visit, wearing a mask, the prostitute he lost his virginity to, though part of the problem with the film is that scenes like this are often too short or don’t go as far as they should. There’s a clear tension between trying to make a serious drama about aging and trying to make a giallo, there not being really enough room for both. In terms of thrills there are some but not that many, something not helped by Deodato’s rather flat handling. There’re still some juicy kills though. One outstanding, if clearly Dario Argento-influenced, scene has a woman first have her neck pierced by a sword then, whilst the blood flows, pushed head first through a window in slow motion. Another rather sillier kill has a stabbing by table lamp! Both those deaths were virtually removed for the video version. The most disturbing scene has Robert see a child with an old man’s face on a swing. He just looks incredibly creepy. Of course some might say that using a real condition for horrific effect is distasteful, and I doubt it would happen now, but hey, it was Italy and the ‘80’s.
Donald Pleasance is also too old for his role [his daughter is young enough to be his granddaughter] and doesn’t really do a lot with it, but it’s fun to see him chasing another psychopath anyway. Giallo fans will enjoy seeing ‘70’s genre starlet Edwige Fenech, and not looking any older, though she doesn’t get strip off this time [but others do]. Pino Donaggio provides a very good score, trying his best to give the proceedings some suspense and adding a further element of compassion. His piano music for Robert is also impressive. Phantom Of Death certainly has its interesting ideas and strong aspects, but just doesn’t entirely come off, paradoxically suffering from being both over-ambitious and then not having the balls or skill to follow it all through, in the process not really satisfying anybody.